Taxpayers will bear Covid costs for decades, MPs warn

25 July 2021, 07:46

A report estimates taxpayers will face the costs of Covid for decades
A report estimates taxpayers will face the costs of Covid for decades. Picture: Alamy
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Taxpayers will bear the costs of the Covid pandemic "for decades" and an inquiry will not come soon enough to learn lessons from it, MPs have said.

Two reports from the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised the government's handling of the crisis for exposing Brits to "significant financial risks" for years to come.

They also slammed No10 for spending money on unusable personal protective equipment (PPE) and delaying a public inquiry until next year.

In the cross-party reports published on Sunday, the PAC estimated the cost of measures introduced by ministers at £372 billion.

However, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said there were "robust processes in place" to ensure spending gives taxpayers value for money.

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The committee also "remains concerned that despite spending over £10 billion on supplies, the PPE stockpile is not fit for purpose".

It added that as of May this year, of the 32 billion items of PPE ordered by the DHSC, around 11 billion had been distributed, while 12.6 billion are stored in the UK as central stock.

Some 8.4 billion that have been ordered from overseas are yet to arrive in the UK.

MPs on the committee expressed concern over the cost of storing the stockpile, estimating a weekly price tag of £6.7 million, with potential waste levels "unacceptably high".

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The report said there were 10,000 shipping containers of PPE still to be unpacked by May this year, but 2.1 billion items of PPE had already been found unsuitable for use in medical settings.

This cost more than £2 billion of taxpayers' money and over five times the estimate of PPE unfit for purpose given to MPs by DHSC in January 2021, the PAC said.

For the excess PPE that was suitable for medical use, the MPs were concerned the government is yet to create any robust plans for repurposing and distributing this essential stock in a way that ensures value for money and protects staff and patients.

Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, said: "With eye-watering sums of money spent on Covid measures so far, the Government needs to be clear, now, how this will be managed going forward, and over what period of time.

"The ongoing risk to the taxpayer will run for 20 years on things like arts and culture recovery loans, let alone the other new risks that departments across Government must quickly learn to manage."

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A promised public inquiry into the pandemic is not expected to start until spring next year, and will likely be long-running, and the PAC report said it was "clear that government cannot wait for the review before learning important lessons" and must instead present a Covid recovery plan in the autumn spending review.

Dame Meg added: "If coronavirus is with us for a long time, the financial hangover could leave future generations with a big headache."

A DHSC spokeswoman responded: "There are robust processes in place to ensure that government spending always provides value for money for the taxpayer.

"We have worked tirelessly to source life-saving PPE to protect health and care staff, and we have delivered over 12.7 billion items to the frontline at record speed."

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But Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said the cross-party report is more evidence of the Tories' failures during the pandemic that she says "resulted in tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and saw eye-watering sums of taxpayers' money wasted on unsafe PPE and contracts handed out to their mates".

"We cannot wait until next year for the public inquiry to start and ministers cannot kick it into the long grass and cover up their failures by refusing to hand over information hidden in personal email accounts," she added.

"The public inquiry must start immediately and the inquiry must have full access to all ministerial correspondence, contracts and documents, including all government business carried out on personal email accounts."